A little past noon on Wednesday, January 15, 1919, a tank on Commercial Street in Boston’s crowded North End that could hold 2.3 million gallons of molasses ruptured.
An ensuing 13,000-gallon wave of amber syrup that reached 25 feet at its zenith drowned or crushed 21 people and injured around 150 more, destroying buildings and other property—and horses—as it traveled up to 35 miles per hour in one of the more freakish disasters in American history.
The disaster has been recounted many times—Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 is the definitive account—and 2019 will mark its centennial.
A sometimes overlooked aspect of the Great Molasses Flood has to do with the effect it had on the regulation of real estate development in Boston and across the U.S.. A judgement against the parent company of the firm that had put up and owned the molasses tank cited the structure’s poor design and shoddy construction.
The aftermath of the ruling led, among other reforms, to the adoption in every state of engineering certification laws as well as the requirement that a registered professional engineer seal all plans for major projects before a municipality or state issued a building permit.
Governments and quasi-government agencies across the nation also tightened their oversight of engineering and architectural plans in general.
Interestingly, the reforms that the Great Molasses Flood spurred in construction were similar to what the deadly Cocoanut Grove conflagration, also in Boston, spurred in fire safety. That November 1942 disaster in an overcrowded Bay Village nightclub with poorly marked exits and a surfeit of flammable material killed 492 and injured hundreds more.